Professional astronomers to amateur skywatchers and the average person can’t help but stand in awe when an eclipse occurs as the event itself naturally demands reverence and respect.
Although the eclipse is a phenomenon, scientists and researchers continue to take advantage of available technology to advance studies during an event. It’s also been given significance through the ages within various religions and cultures.
But, why is a solar eclipse a phenomenon?
What is really happening and why?
To get some answers, let’s examine a few things about the sun and moon to get an inkling of understanding.
Solar Eclipse Phenomenon
What makes a solar eclipse different to a lunar eclipse? What exactly do you see during an eclipse? It will be explained here in easy-to-understand language without the jargon so you can comprehend and appreciate the magnitude of these rare events.
What is a Solar Eclipse?
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon in is in its New Moon phase and sets itself between the earth and the sun to form a straight line between these celestial bodies (syzygy). There are three main types of eclipses: total, partial, and annular. There is a fourth but it’s extremely rare and is a combination of a total and annular eclipse often referred to as a hybrid eclipse.
During the eclipse, the sun is either totally or partially obscured by the moon and this causes the moon’s shadow to engulf the earth as it blocks out sunlight.
Total eclipses are identifiable by a complete covering of the sun by the moon. The moon appears dark, sunlight is obscured, temperatures drop, and the solar corona, Bailey’s Beads, the diamond ring effect is visible. However, a total eclipse can only be seen in its totality in a limited area usually called the path of totality or a narrow track. In areas outside of this narrow track the eclipse is seen as a partial eclipse.
This type of eclipse consists of the moon partially obscuring the sun and is the least noticeable of all types of solar eclipses. The moon is not exactly in line with the sun and earth and so it appears as if the moon is making lunch out of the sun by taking a bite from its disk.
This is similar to a total eclipse except the moon seems smaller against the sun as it passes by since it’s furthest away in its elliptical orbit. What is left is what appears to be a ring of fire, an annulus, around the disk of the moon as the sun shines against the silhouette.
Ring of fire eclipses are often admired for their majesty and beauty, but total eclipses still rank higher as the most desirable types of eclipse to observe.
A hybrid eclipse is a changing eclipse as it starts off as total and then changes to annular, and vice versa, along its path. Compared to the other types of eclipses, hybrid eclipses are very rare.
What are Eclipse Phenomena?
What are Bailey’s Beads and what is the diamond ring effect? They are two, different eclipse phenomena that are seen pre and post total eclipses. Bailey’s Beads are the appearance of beads of sunlight streaming through around the silhouette of the moon during the process a total and annular eclipse. The moon has craters, mountains, and rugged terrain that is outlined by the sun during the eclipse and small rays of sunlight shine through in some spots while not in others.
The diamond ring effect is as exactly as you would imagine. It’s seen around the moon with a single bead of light left appearing as if it is a shining jewel or diamond set in a ring of light.
The solar corona appears as faint rays streaming from the silhouette of the moon but is actually the sun’s outermost layer of its atmosphere. It’s faintly visible, can be over 1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit, and extends millions of kilometers into outer space. When the solar corona is seen, it is considered the peak and most dramatic point of a total eclipse.
Other eclipse phenomena that occur includes shadow bands and visibility of the sun’s chromosphere.
Solar Eclipse VS Lunar Eclipse
What’s the difference between a solar and lunar eclipse?
Since we’ve already established that solar eclipses occur when the new moon comes between the sun and the earth, a lunar eclipse is the opposite. The earth comes between the sun and the moon preventing the sun’s rays from reaching the moon. In some instances, what light does reach the moon has been filtered and refracted by the earth’s atmosphere that appears to give it a reddish color unofficially coined as a Blood Moon.
There are three types of lunar eclipses: total, partial, and preumbral. A lunar eclipse can only happen when it’s in its full moon phase. Differences from a solar eclipse include:
- Only occurs with a full moon
- Earth stands between the sun and moon
- Can be seen anywhere on Earth where it is night
- Lasts longer than a solar eclipse
- Safe to witness without eye protection
- Light refraction can cause the moon to appear red in color
Why is a Solar Eclipse Rare?
When speaking about the rarity of solar eclipses, one is usually speaking of total eclipses. Even though the moon makes a full orbit around the earth every month, and so theoretically speaking, there could be the possibility of an eclipse every month, it doesn’t happen like that. The sun looks as it always does every day even when a new moon occurs, but the shadow cast from the moon either falls above or below the earth and no eclipse is seen.
Furthermore, you must be within the moon’s shadow in order to see it. This is due to the moon’s orbital path that is on a slant, so for an eclipse to occur, two things must happen. The moon must be in its New Moon phase and it must align precisely or be very close to an orbital node. This is the lining up of the orbital planes between the moon’s orbit with the earth and earth’s orbit with the sun. The points in which this happens and eclipses occur are called lunar nodes.
Solar eclipses visible from earth occur with an approximate maximum of five times per year. Perhaps one, but no more than two, of those will be total eclipses. Its currently estimated that total eclipses occur every 18 months but predicting where that can be seen at any point on earth is the challenge.
Seeing as the earth is made of 70% water, that only leaves 30% of viable land space to view the eclipse from, and even then, you must be in the right place at the right time to see it. The location in which you can view a total eclipse is extremely restrictive as there is only a narrow path in which totality can be seen.
This path of totality is estimated to be about 100 miles wide and 10,000 miles long. Additionally, a total eclipse has a short duration with long totality considered to be seven minutes and some seconds, and this is extremely rare.
The moon must be a New Moon at the right point of its orbital path to create the conditions necessary for a total eclipse. Not only is this occurrence considered rare but being able to predict where you should be to witness totality will certainly be a rare opportunity indeed.
What Can You See During a Solar Eclipse?
If you’re eager to get a glimpse of the beauty of an eclipse for yourself, you may be wondering what precautions you need to take and when the next eclipse will occur. Let’s take a glimpse at what’s required and what dates you should be aware of.
Can You View an Eclipse from Home?
Where do you have to be to see a solar eclipse? Well, each solar eclipse is a rare astronomical event and since the moon itself is significantly smaller than the earth, its shadow is not large enough to engulf the earth for it to be visible by all. Additionally, both the earth and the moon are constantly moving, so viewing an eclipse is not only rare, viewing it from your home may be even rarer.
To see an eclipse from home would have to mean that you are within the path of totality or close to it – within the moon’s shadow. Within the path of totality, you can see the total eclipse and its phenomena from the solar corona to the diamond ring effect. If you’re further away, you may only see a partial eclipse. The time and phases of the eclipse will be different depending on your location.
Various astronomer, NASA, and government websites usually post interactive maps and site locations to help you determine where you are in relation to the eclipse and what time you can view it.
How to Safely View a Solar Eclipse
Interestingly, a total eclipse at its peak is just as safe as looking at a full moon, but, you must be within the path of totality to see this phenomenon and witness it safely without damage to your eyes. Outside of the path and during partial eclipse, it is not safe to view the eclipse without protective eyeglass wear.
Sunglasses, polarized glasses, and dark lens glasses are not safe to use either. You must use special solar filter products such as solar handheld viewers or solar filter eclipse glasses. If you’re using a telescope for watching a solar eclipse, you must use filters in front of the optic to protect your vision and telescope. ISO 12312-2 compliant products do not have warnings that caution expiry or limited viewing time.
We have a great article that compares telescopes and spotting scopes that is worth a read.
As such, they are appropriate to reuse indefinitely if filters are in good condition without scratches and other damage.
To use your ISO-compliant glasses or handheld viewer for an eclipse:
- Inspect the filters to ensure they are free of damage and read any special instructions and warnings. Insert filters if applicable.
- Put the glasses on or hold the viewer in front of your eyes and look towards the sun.
- If you’re in the path of totality, you can remove the filter when the moon has fully peaked and totality has occurred. Experience it. Take it in. Be in awe.
- As soon as totality has concluded, you must put the filter back in to watch the post partial phase of the eclipse.
- Once you’re done, look away from the sun before removing the filters.
Here are some DO NOT tips to remember:
- Never look directly at the sun or the eclipse with the naked eye or even with UV protection sunglasses. You can cause permanent and temporary blindness and damage to the retinas.
- Always purchase ISO 12312-2 compliant eclipse filter products.
- Do not look through unfiltered optics to view an eclipse. Such optics include cameras, telescopes, and binoculars.
- Similarly, do not look through these optics even while you are wearing eclipse protective products as the sun’s light concentrates and burns through the filters of your protective glasses and cause eye damage.
- Use filters in front of the camera or telescope if you are documenting the eclipse.
- Do not use solar filters that attach to the eyepiece of your optics.
The simplest way to indirectly view an eclipse is with a pinhole projector that you can make yourself.
Use two sheets of cardboard or paper and poke a hole through the center of one sheet with a pin or something that will provide a perfectly round shape.
Hold the paper with the hole above your head or shoulder with your back turned from the sun. The light that comes through the hole will project onto the second sheet of paper showing a circle, or an image of the sun, and what phase is occurring during the eclipse.
To enlarge the image, move the intact paper further away to increase length between it and the paper with the hole.
When is the Next Solar Eclipse?
Usually, when a solar eclipse is approaching, the news, social media, scientists, astronomers, and all sorts of interested parties create a buzz. Interestingly, this type of behavior and excitement isn’t anything new. Eclipses have been happening since time in this solar system began, and ancient civilizations have records, predictions, and superstitious beliefs of their own.
In times B.C., the Mesopotamians may not have had a clue about why it happened, but they certainly recorded enough detail to predict when it would occur. The Greeks took things a step further to examine how these heavenly bodies moved, and the Middle East, China, and the Mayans continued their own observations.
Wondering when the next solar eclipse will occur has been an avid passion for many since time immemorial. But, if you prefer to be better prepared for the next eclipse, or even if you’re willing to travel, you’ll need some specific dates beforehand.
Future Total Solar Eclipses
- December 14, 2020
- December 4, 2021
- April 20, 2023
- April 8, 2024
- August 12, 2026
- August 2, 2027
- July 22, 2028
- November 25, 2030
Future Partial Solar Eclipses
- April 30, 2022
- October 25, 2022
- March 29, 2025
- September 21, 2025
- January 14, 2029
- June 12, 2029
- July 11, 2029
- December 5, 2029
Future Annular Solar Eclipses
- June 21, 2020
- June 10, 2021
- October 14, 2023
- October 2, 2024
- February 17, 2026
- February 6, 2027
- January 26, 2028
- June 1, 2030
When is the Next Solar Eclipse in the USA?
If you live in the United States, unfortunately, you’ll be missing out on many of the solar eclipses ahead for the next decade. However, there are some specific dates that you can plan for if you live in the USA and you may even be willing to travel across state lines to get a better view of the eclipses predicted to occur. While the states listed are quite comprehensive, they are not complete.
- Total Eclipse: April 8, 2024
States that may be within the path of totality include Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Ohio, Maine, New York, and Vermont. States outside the path of totality will see a high percentage of the partial eclipse and they include California, Colorado, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.
- Partial Eclipse: March 29, 2025
States that may see a part of the partial eclipse include Maine and New York.
- Partial Eclipse: January 14, 2029
States that may see the partial eclipse include California, Arizona, Washington, Utah, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York.
- Partial Eclipse: June 12, 2029
States that may see the partial eclipse include Alaska.
- Annular Eclipse: June 10, 2021
Only partial eclipse is visible from New York, Maine, and Pennsylvania as it passes through North East USA with its epicenter in Canada.
- Annular Eclipse: October 14, 2023
States that may see the partial eclipse and part of it include Oregon, New Mexico, Texas, California, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona with the epicenter in Texas.
Umbraphiles Through the Ages
Are you an umbraphile?
It means “shadow lover;” someone who chases eclipses. Traveling and investing in equipment to view these majestic moments of heavenly bodies in syzygy is a lifetime experience. But, you don’t have to travel to be a passionate admirer of eclipses.
Appreciate the recordings of ancient peoples who took the time to record what they witnessed and their explanations of when and why they were occurring. Some had scientific evidence and others had superstitious beliefs which are still perpetuated today.
Modern day technology has provided satellites to create accurate eclipse maps and predictions of future eclipses down to exact locations and times. Thanks to these umbraphiles, astronomers, scientists, and ancient records, we are where we are today – appreciating the phenomenon of solar eclipses and the significance it holds for many in our modern age, both spiritual and scientific.